It was winter 2016 when I reached rock bottom. I went on a three-day Facebook binge. I can’t remember what set it off, but I remember how it ended. I woke up in a gutter, heart pounding, thinking I was going to die. I knew then that I needed help. I needed to stop. Since that day, I have been social media sober.
None of that is true, of course, because it doesn’t work like that. We might joke about being addicted to social media, but we rarely think of it as a real addiction, as something that can seriously affect our health. After all, it is not illegal. You can’t overdose on it. It doesn’t come in a packet with a massive sign saying “Facebook kills” or “Pregnant women should abstain from Instagram”. In fact, many of us don’t consider checking social media multiple times a day to be a bad habit — it is normal, right?
Look at the numbers: Facebook alone has, on an average, more than two billion monthly users. In 2016, when the company had a mere 1.7 billion users, it reported that people spent an average of 50 minutes a day on its platforms Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. I would bet that, today, that average is more than an hour. Because we are all hooked, it can be hard to recognise your social media habits as problematic. The closest I came to an “aha” moment was during a visit to Facebook’s headquarters at One Hacker Way, Palo Alto, in 2014, when I worked in advertising. Hearing its sales executives explain how much data Facebook had on its users, all the ways it could target people and get them to click on ads, was terrifying. I haven’t posted a personal update on Facebook since. The moment you start thinking about Facebook as a surveillance system rather than a social network, it becomes a lot more difficult to hand it your personal information.
But I didn’t stop using Facebook — or any other social media. I was still scrolling mindlessly through Facebook and Instagram many times a day; I was on Twitter for hours. The time I was frittering away on social media wasn’t merely a distraction; it was making me feel lousy. The way I was using Facebook and Instagram, I gradually realised, was downright masochistic: When I was feeling bad about my life, I would look at pictures of other people’s “perfect” lives and feel even worse. Facebook takes social pressures and conventions (for example, the pressure to be married with children and living in a big house by a certain age) and amplifies them a million times. Comparing other people’s timelines with my own made me start to worry about the need to conform in a way that I never had before.
So, I decided to quit Facebook — and I failed miserably, because Facebook makes it incredibly difficult for you to extricate yourself from its clutches. It takes several clicks just to get to the page housing the deactivate button. Even then, it is right at the bottom, under a section where you specify a “legacy contact” — someone to manage your account after your death. In other words, Facebook makes it easier for you to ensure your account lives longer than you do than it does to let you take a break from the network.
After clicking “deactivate” and re-entering your password, the emotional blackmail starts: Facebook shows you a slide show of your friends and suggests that you send them a message. It then makes you specify why you are leaving — before suggesting that your reason isn’t good enough. For example, clicking “I spend too much time using Facebook” prompts a pop-up explaining that you can deal with this by limiting the number of emails Facebook sends you. After closing this pop-up, you must click deactivate, at which point yet another pop-up asks if you are sure. Finally, you have to click deactivate again. That is 10 clicks. To put that in perspective: I can buy two adult Madagascar hissing cockroaches on Amazon with one click. I obviously wouldn’t buy cockroaches on Amazon, or anywhere else, but did you know that some people do? I think I learnt that from an article on Facebook.
Anyway, forget cockroaches. Here is what is really messed up: Deactivating your account means next to nothing. All you have to do to reactivate your account is log in again or use a service that you signed up to via Facebook, such as Spotify. As for deleting your account forever — I won’t even start on how difficult that is.
What isn’t difficult, however, is deleting social media apps from your phone. A study published in April found that simply seeing the Facebook logo can spark a social media craving that is hard to resist. After getting rid of the Facebook and Instagram apps last year, I discovered I was much less tempted to log in via my laptop. Without really trying, I started looking at them a lot less. I also began to block and mute more people. The block button is key to social media sanity.
Reducing my social media habit didn’t make me more productive — I am very talented at finding ways to waste time. However, it did make me see how little value Facebook added to my life. Choosing to opt out of the constant noise, to reclaim my attention, was a massive relief. I stopped comparing myself with others so much and started to feel a lot happier with my life. It also reduced my anxiety levels. In today’s news cycle, the endless stream of breaking news, amplified by social media, can easily break your spirit.
There are, of course, benefits to social media. It can be enjoyable and useful. It is great in moderation. But here is the problem: It is extremely difficult to use social media in moderation. It is engineered to be addictive — and, as these companies gather more data about their users, it is becoming more addictive.
It is worth remembering that, before dropping out of Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg majored in Psychology. Facebook isn’t so much a feat of computer programming as it is of social programming. It is designed to exploit “vulnerability in human psychology”, as Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, put it in an interview with Axios in November. “The thought process that went into building [social networks such as Facebook] was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Parker said. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content and that’s going to get you ... more ‘likes’ and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop ... you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors ... understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
While Zuckerberg et al may have understood that they were building deeply addictive networks, I don’t think they anticipated the impact of what they were creating. None of us did. Some people have described social media as being the new Big Tobacco; I am completely of this view. In the next decade, we are going to see a social media public health crisis unfold as the effects on our brains, relationships and democracies unfold. We are getting previews of what that might look like already: There is a growing mountain of evidence that suggests Facebook negatively affects people’s mental and physical health. We are also beginning to understand, thanks to Facebook’s own experiments, that the network has the ability to manipulate and control our emotions. Then there are its effects on society: It has become clear that Facebook can encourage self-segregation and exacerbate social divides. Indeed, the former vice-president for user growth at Facebook sparked headlines last month for saying that he felt “tremendous guilt” for his work on a platform that he believes is “eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other”.
It is also apparent how easily the power of Facebook can be used by malevolent actors. We now know, for example, that during the 2016 United States presidential election, false news from a single Russian troll farm reached about 126 million people.
But what has become most clear in the past few years is the alarming hubris of Big Tech. In November 2017, Facebook, Twitter and Google were summoned to testify before Congress in the United States about Russian election meddling and the steps they had in place to prevent their platforms being abused. None of the companies’ CEOs bothered to turn up (although they were not summoned specifically).
Zuckerberg talks a lot about “community” and not enough about accountability. Until the likes of Facebook match their greater power with a greater sense of responsibility, we ought to ask ourselves how much we want to be a willing part of their journey to world domination.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist.